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Chisholm v. Georgia


Confirmed interpretation of Article III, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution as allowing citizens of one state to bring suit against the government of another state. Overturned by adoption of the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution in 1798.

Among the more pressing questions facing the United States in the years following its independence was the relationship of the federal government to the state and of the states to each other. Many issues remained unclear, although the scrapping of the Articles of Confederation pointed to increased centralization of authority at the expense of autonomy for the states. Considerable difference of opinion existed regarding the correct interpretation of Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which delineated the relationship between state and federal statutes as follows:

The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made under their authority . . . to controversies between two or more states, between a state and citizens of another state, between citizens of different states, between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states, and between a state, or the citizens thereof, and foreign states, citizens, or subjects.

In 1792, the state of Georgia confiscated the properties of Alexander Chisholm upon his death because none of his heirs currently resided in the state. Chisholm's heirs resolved to sue Georgia to recover their inheritance. The case came before the U.S. Supreme Court on 11 July 1792. The primary issue to be decided concerned the jurisdiction of federal courts in a dispute between a citizen and a state.

When the state of Georgia failed to appear at the Court, Edmund Randolph, counsel for the plaintiffs and a signer of the Constitution, moved that if the state failed to appear, or to show cause preventing an appearance within four days, that the Court enter a judgement in favor of the plaintiffs. The state of Georgia's failure to contest the case was based on its belief that the Court would subscribe to an interpretation of Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution that barred citizens of one state from suing the government of another state. Many individuals felt that to allow such suits would prove too great an abridgement of the autonomy of the states. Randolph countered the possibility of the Court's adopting this opinion by advancing two arguments. He maintained that the state could be considered a "party defendant" before the Supreme Court due to a suit brought by a citizen from another state, asserting that the Constitution " . . . derives its origin immediately from the people; and the people individually are, under certain limitations, subject to the legislative, executive, and judicial authorities thereby established. The states are in fact assemblages of these individuals who are liable to process." Randolph also argued that the Judiciary Act of 1789 validated an interpretation of Article III, Section 2 allowing individual citizens to sue states in which they did not reside.

The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on 18 February 1792, and served notice to the governor and attorney general of Georgia that judgement by default would be made against the state for failure to appear in court. Justices Blair, Cushing, Jay, and Wilson entered consenting opinions, with Jay's in particular upholding Randolph's view of ultimate sovereignty residing in individuals, with the states merely representing, for legal purposes, aggregations of individuals. Georgia ignored the Court's order, however, and judgement was finally entered against the state in February of 1794.

Public sentiment in favor of state's rights soon became a factor in the case, however, and a constitutional amendment was proposed in December of 1793 that stated:

. . . the judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law of equity commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state . . .
The writ against the state of Georgia was never served, and the proposed amendment was ratified as the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1798.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Chisholm v. Georgia - Significance, Further Readings